tl266Interpreting slavery, with its powerful resonances, is a privilege and a great responsibility. We have an obligation to the public to share a comprehensive and conscientious story of the past, especially as studies show that the public considers museums to be their most trusted source of historical information.

The Tracing Center conducted a survey to explore the needs and challenges in interpreting slavery. We organized the responses into a framework to help structure the creation of a comprehensive and conscientious interpretation of slavery:

  1. Comprehensive content. Historical research about the role of slavery that is broad—covering not just your site, but also the role slavery played in the broader history of your community, state, and the nation—and deep—offering a well-rounded narrative informed by individual stories.
  2. Race and identity awareness. We must be aware of, and comfortable with, our own knowledge and feelings about race and slavery, and we need to understand where our visitors are coming from in order to help them understand their own concerns surrounding race and identity when learning about slavery.
  3. Institutional investment. All of an institution’s core constituencies—board, management, staff, and volunteers—must be invested in and support the institution’s interpretation of slavery.
  4. Community involvement. Partners from the community– descendants of slave-owners and enslaved persons, neighbors, businesses, civic organizations, municipal government, social groups, churches and universities – should all be actively involved in your site.
  5. Visitor experiences and expectations. We need to know the sorts of preconceptions visitors bring with them, what their expectations of the visit are, and how their actual experiences match up to their expectations.
  6. Staff training. Trainers and staff need to discuss the nuances of creating content and affectively balanced narratives and how to help visitors scaffold their knowledge and fashion new historical narratives out of cognitive dissonance.

Key Takeaway Messages:

  1. Presenting the history of slavery in a comprehensive and conscientious manner is difficult and requires diligence and compassion – for the history itself, for those telling the story, and for those heading the stories – but it’s a necessary part of America’s collective narrative about our past, present, and future.
  2. We do not want to step unprepared into the minefield of racial history and issues of race today. In preparation for talking with visitors, staff need to become learners, developing a more comprehensive understanding of the history of slavery in this country, and recognizing that this will almost certainly challenge narratives at the core of their own identities. Staff will also want to discuss among themselves the questions and concerns they have about race, and will require resources for learning about issues of race, identity, and privilege, as well as models for how to talk about these issues.
  3. This story of slavery is an integral part of U.S. history, and it is the responsibility of historic sites to present a comprehensive and conscientious narrative. Race should not, indeed it cannot, be a barrier to telling this story. Through facilitated dialogue and engaging with people of other races, staff can reach a better understanding of how to come to terms with any understandable anxiety or lack of knowledge. It can also be difficult for black interpreters to present this history—how to represent with dignity and gravitas the horrors of slavery, with which black interpreters are often no more familiar than their white counterparts. For years, however, black history has been filtered through the lenses of white historians, which has largely obscured the agency of historical and contemporary black Americans. By taking ownership of this history, both black and white interpreters can bring context and compassion to their subject.

Questions for Readers:

  1. How do you holistically integrate the history of slavery into your site’s narrative?
  2. What are your visitors saying about their expectations of slavery interpretation at your site?  What are they saying about their experience of slavery interpretation at your site?